Local Systems Practice User's Guide


Local Systems Practice (LSP) uses systems-based approaches to address complex development challenges and strengthen local systems.

This guide - developed by the LSP consortium - provides insights on several methodologies that can assist localworks missions and local organizations with applying a systems lens to drive their own development. The guide is geared toward better understanding:

  1. how these approaches work; and
  2. where and when to best apply them.

Additional resources are cited in each section for individuals that want to learn more about how to conduct and undertake these systems methods. The discussion of methods and tools in this guide is limited to the international development context.

For more information about localworks and Local Systems Practice click here.


The challenge: Things do not occur in a vacuum.

  • Problems and opportunities exist in a context. As such, to understand various phenomena, we need to treat them as part of a larger system in which different actors, factors, and processes interact to shape the broader outcomes and behaviors we observe. A system is a group of interdependent/interacting parts that form a unified whole to pursue a common goal.
  • Although there are many types of systems (e.g., engineering, biological, and ecological), the most complex systems involve a strong human component. In these “soft systems,” intelligent actors (i.e., people), who behave in light of their perspectives and experiences, learn from their interactions and adapt their behaviors. This causes the broader system to continuously change and organize itself in response to internal and external requirements, making behavior and outcomes difficult to predict or dictate externally.

The systems approach: enables a holistic view into the broader context and dynamics associated with complex issues or problems.

  • What is a systems analysis?
    • A system analysis is a snapshot of system in a single moment in time. A systems lens helps us identify the relevant individuals and entities, how they interact, and the dynamics that influence and govern the system.
  • What are the benefits of a systems analysis?
    • A systems analysis can highlight potential areas of tension or dynamism. It can provide clues about how the system may change. What factors might be most influential? Who is marginalized and why? And, how might localworks’ engagement affect the system?
    • Systems analysis can help development efforts avoid unintended consequences that may distort the system or undermine existing local capacities.


Systems analysis can be conducted with a range of tools and methods. These tools and methods may be used in isolation, or in combination. While there is no magic formula for determining the right combination of tools and methods, selection generally depends on the system being analyzed, and the research question(s) being posed.

The tools and methods offered by the LSP consortium include:

Social Network Analysis to help identify actors best positioned to positively impact the network

Social Network Analysis (SNA) has been called an "X-Ray" for complex systems. It makes visible the critical but hidden web of relationships that make systems function. SNA results in a visual representation of a network, allowing for the identification of critical actors, key gaps, and leverage points.

For more information on SNA click here.

Causal Loop Diagrams to understand what part of the system to engage in to initiate change

Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs) are used to conceptually model dynamic systems in a holistic manner, mapping how variables (i.e., factors, issues, processes) influence one another. These diagrams are particularly useful in uncovering a system’s underlying feedback structures, and in identifying high and low leverage intervention points in a system. These diagrams also reveal the natural constraints within the system, helping us develop more realistic expectations regarding our ability to bring about change.

For more information on CLD click here.

Ethnography to better understand behaviors and norms within a system

Ethnography allows us to gain an "insider's perspective" to increase our understanding of complex social dynamics in a given context or community. Ethnography can assist in the identification of actors, processes, and institutions which are commonly perceived as influential within a complex social process, while uncovering those which tend to be hidden. Ethnography also increases our understanding of local logics and rationale which deepens our ability to interpret behaviors and norms within a system.

For more information on ethnography click here.

To access the Listening for Program Design guide click here.

Participatory Systems Analysis to enable strategic actors to come together to gain a better understanding of their own system, create joint visions of how it could improve and agree on practical ways to do it

Participatory Systems Analysis puts the emphasis on the system actors and the processes that allow them to interact, learn from each other and find feasible areas for collaboration. PSA is not a tool that we can use to analyse the system; instead, it is an approach where multiples tools and techniques (including the ones in this guide) can be used to help the actors analyse the system they belong to. PSA must also promote a cyclical movement between analysis and synthesis (zooming in and zooming out).

For more information on PSA click here.


The systems approach draws on multiple methodologies and tools. The ones presented in this User's Guide are not exhaustive, but rather represent a sampling of frequently used tools. These tools and methods can be applied in combination, and these combinations depend on the pragmatic needs to a particular inquiry (e.g. to describe a situation, to view changes over time, to learn about a situation, etc.).

This User's Guide will be updated to provide examples of how and why particular tools are combined in particular contexts.